Can Virtual Reality Help Veterans Avoid As Well As Recover from PTSD?

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By Stephen Spotswood 

BETHESDA, MD — Research rooted in treating trauma in the civilian sector is examining how a combination of pharmaceuticals and virtual reality can help combat veterans recover more swiftly from chronic PTSD.

Barbara Rothbaum, PhD, director of the Trauma and Anxiety Recovery Program at Emory University School of Medicineis an expert on PTSD and anxiety and a pioneer in virtual reality for the treatment of psychological disorders. Lecturing on the campuses of NIH recently, she described how her work treating civilian-trauma survivors has put her and her research in the perfect position to treat returning Iraq veterans.


Barbara Rothbaum, PhD, director of the Trauma and Anxiety Recovery Program and a professor at Emory University School of Medicine, demonstrates virtual reality therapy for PTSD.

PTSD Is Universal“Most of us think of PTSD as the war veteran’s disease, and it’s certainly a huge problem in veteran populations, but estimates are that 70% of us will undergo a traumatic event in our lifetime capable of producing PTSD,” Rothbaum explained. “Trauma is ubiquitous. About 10% of the population in the U.S. at any point is suffering from PTSD.”

Looking at victims of rape, Rothbaum found that half met the full criteria for PTSD following the event, while a slightly more than  20% developed chronic PTSD. “This tells me that the symptoms of PTSD are a normal response to trauma,” she said.

The goal of PTSD research is to focus on where the normal response ends and a psychopathological response, such as chronic PTSD, begins.

“This has led some of us to think of PTSD as a disorder of extinction,” Rothbaum said. “Fear and anxiety is a normal response and, for most people, it extinguishes over time. For a significant minority, it doesn’t.”

There are many reasons people with PTSD have not been able to process the event: One is fear and anxiety of reliving the event, while another is society’s unwillingness to embrace and talk publicly about traumatic events.

“I think this is what happened to our Vietnam veterans,” Rothbaum said. “One of our [patients] told us as his plane was taking off from Saigon, there were walking mortars following it. He barely escaped with his life, and, 24 hours later, he was sitting in his parent’s living room watching what he said were lies on the evening news about the war. No chance to talk about it, debrief, decompress — nothing. And it was an unpopular war, so nobody wanted to talk about it.”

The slower withdrawal from theater for veterans of World War II may be one of the reasons there is a lower level of PTSD seen in that population, she said. “ I think that long boat ride home was actually very therapeutic. They stayed with the people they served with. They could talk together, grieve together if they had lost buddies, and they could talk about it and process it.”

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